Whether you’re completely at peace with social distancing or are grieving canceled trips and already feeling cooped up, research shows that it’s best for people of all ages to “stay active and socially engaged during periods of social distancing and isolation.”
A Rutgers Today article published yesterday features some straightforward tips from licensed clinical psychologist and Rutgers School of Public Health instructor Elissa Kozlov, who says, “The motto ‘Do more, feel better’ is an evidence-based way to reduce feelings of depression” that may creep in.
“Engage in a hobby: Read, complete a puzzle, play board games, do crafts and have family join you,” Dr. Kozlov said in her interview. And then, there’s learning a language, an idea professional and full-time travelers who’ve been grounded by COVID-19 are getting behind. We talked to six people around the globe — from Italy to Ghana, France to Indonesia — who are making the most of their time in by learning a language for their next trips. They share these tips and resources that you can use, too.
1. Try Free Tech
Jacqueline Lambert, author of the series Adventure Caravaning with Dogs, told us, “My husband and I gave up work at age 50, accidentally bought a caravan, got tipsy and decided to sell most of our possessions, rent out the house, and tour permanently with our four dogs. We are currently in the fifth year of our proposed three years of continuous touring.”
For nearly two weeks, Jacqueline, her husband, and their pups have been locked down in a deserted Italian ski resort where they’d intended to spend their fourth winter season. “We had planned to continue our travels to Poland and the Baltics. This clearly is not now an option, which is disappointing, but we are making the most of the situation, enjoying the scenery and learning new skills online.”
The Lamberts are studying Russian, which Jacqueline says “will help with our proposed future incursions into St. Petersburg and other areas of the former USSR.”
“I am trying to view lockdown as a precious gift of time,” she said. But that doesn’t mean she’s pouring a ton of money into her linguistic pursuits.
“I use Duolingo on my laptop, which I find easy and intuitive to use. The format is like a computer game, and you can commit to spend as little as five minutes a day on your language training. Anyone can find five minutes, even when they’re not on lockdown!”
Duolingo is a free, interactive software that can be used in your internet browser or downloaded as an app and used on your phone or tablet. There is an upgraded version, Duolingo Plus, that is ad-free and helps support Duolingo’s mission of bringing education to people around the globe.
Neill Kramer, owner of Ohana Retreat Bali, also uses Duolingo and recommends Mondly — another free language learning software that’s available online and in app form — to learn Indonesian.
Between Duolingo and Mondly, you could learn one or more of over 30 languages. In fact, Jaqueline told us, “I used Duolingo to learn German to a conversational standard from scratch to help with our second year touring, and Duolingo helps me to keep my Italian up to scratch for our frequent sojourns in our favorite country.”
2. Consider A Private Tutor
Private language tutoring used to mean meeting at a language center, cafe, or library. But now it can be done entirely online — or even on your phone. Jennifer Dombrowski and Tim Davis, the writers behind the blog Luxe Adventure Traveler (which puts the emphasis on “adventure travel with a glass of wine”), are American expats living in France full time — and learning French. “We had actually been studying with a private tutor online via a program called Preply,” they told us. “Life got a bit busy and we had to pause our French for a bit. But now with a lot of time at home with a lockdown in France, we’re taking up our French studies again.”
“It’s very easy to use Preply. It’s a marketplace where you can find language tutors teaching many different languages. You can see reviews, and you can try out a session with the tutor to make sure you mesh well.”
Michele Frolla of The Intrepid Guide recommends italki, another private tutoring platform. “Since my physical language classes have been canceled, I rely even more so on italki.” She told us, “There are close to 100 languages to choose from with everything from Afrikaans to Zulu,” but notes that “community teachers could be newly qualified or native speakers who you can practice speaking with but can’t necessarily teach the language.”
She said “I love this platform because you get to dictate when you learn. The teachers are friendly and adapt course material to your needs.”
Michele is currently studying Norwegian with Anita, “a lovely qualified teacher from Western Norway who now lives in Malta. We e-meet every week and use the italki video conference platform — Skype is also an option — to conduct the lesson. She types in the chat the different words we cover and sends across files to use during the lesson.”
If you go with italki, Michele points out that “The first lesson is usually highly discounted,” and “you can get discounted packages when you book five lessons.”
Investing in a private tutor through Preply, italki, or the like is an excellent option for getting in some social interaction, too. You could be social distancing in the Midwest, your tutor could be on lockdown in Asia, and you could meet virtually a few times a week to prepare for a bucket-list trip you plan to take later in 2020 or 2021.
Personally, this is the option that interests me most as I want to brush up on my Nepali. The language — which I studied during two summers in Cornell University’s Intensive Language Program and have used with refugees in St. Louis for the last 11 years — isn’t taught through free platforms like Duolingo or Mondly, and I would definitely benefit from conversation practice and being able to ask someone questions!
3. Invest In Trusted Materials
Visit Ghana tour operator Rashad McCrorey reached out to us from Ghana to chime in on his language learning efforts. He originally purchased a one-way ticket to Ghana to promote his tour company, but told us, “On March 15, [Ghanaian] president Nana Akufo-Addo impost a travel ban on all countries with 200 or more cases of COVID-19 for at least the next four weeks. At this point, if I leave Ghana, I won’t be able to get back in the country.” He decided he needs to stay for as long as he can, and told us he actually feels he’s safer there than at home in the U.S. — at least for the time being.
While stuck in Ghana, he’s been brushing up on the primary local Ghanaian language, Twi. Like Nepali, this is a language you won’t be learning via free software any time soon. Rashad said his preferred method of learning has been the Pimsleur language learning programs.
“I ordered it through Audible and, as directed by the program, I practice and learn one unit a day until I am at least 80 percent proficient in that unit.” Right now, Rashad also has local friends and hotel staff to answer questions as he goes along. Of course, this is where a private tutor could come into play for those who are social distancing and on lockdown.
Like Babbel or Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur offers interactive language learning software in addition to its audiobook offerings.
4. Make The Most Of What You Already Know
Becca Siegel, one of the two photographers behind Half Half Travel, said she’s using this time to revisit her French. “I learned French for five months in my 20s but retained nearly none of it! I remember the words for grapefruit, beach, and not much else.”
Because she knows another romance language, Spanish, “at a near-fluent level,” she downloaded the Le Monde newspaper app so she can get news notifications in French. “Because of the similarity between French and English — and French and Spanish — when it comes to modern words, especially having to do with technology and science, it’s a great base to start off with because you can piece together a sentence in French based on context and proper nouns. I am finding this as a creative and continual way to get exposure to French throughout the day.”
If you don’t like getting notifications on your phone, Becca suggests using any foreign-language news site to test your progress. If you come across something that stumps you, put it into Google Translate. Becca says this is one way she’s developing her French vocabulary, and we like that it’s completely free!
5. Set Time Aside
If you’ve recently canceled a trip, you might feel like you have all the time in the world. For me, nothing feels as pressing since I’ve committed to staying at (or as close as possible to) home. But Rutgers’ Dr. Kozlov says sticking to your schedule is important for your mental health, and creating a schedule for your language learning will further that goal, too. “Do not sleep in; get dressed every day; do not work from your bed,” Dr. Kozlov advised.
Neill of Ohana Retreat said it can be a struggle for him, but he’s trying to use Duolingo and Mondly several times a week. Jackie told us, “Duolingo sends an email reminder each day for your language training, and once you have completed your assignment, calculates how many days you have collected for your multi-day streak, about which I become very possessive! Miss a day and you lose your streak. I have found myself doing my language training at five minutes to midnight in order to retain my streak!”
Finally, Michele shared a tip that’s helping her with her Norwegian. “I would recommend anyone to ask their teacher for suggestions for additional material to use between lessons. For example, my tutor told me about Norway’s TV network, NRK — like the BBC of Norway — which has countless TV shows, and programs to watch that also include subtitles.”
Even if you’re not meeting an instructor for a virtual lesson in real time, you can pencil in time to listen, “play,” or watch a program. Stick to it; when bans are lifted and it’s safe to travel again, you’ll be that much closer to meaningful engagement with the people you meet along the way.